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By: Helene Cooper, NYT


WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, was holding a meeting at the White House with a high-powered array of his predecessors when President Obama dropped in.

The men gathered in the Situation Room had trolled through a number of national security issues, from China to Afghanistan to Iran. But on that Wednesday, the morning after the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, had failed to resolve a standoff over new construction in East Jerusalem with Mr. Obama in White House talks, the major discussion topic was the Middle East. And the question on the table after Mr. Obama joined in: had the time come for the president to put forward his own proposal outlining what a peace deal should look like?
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft and Samuel Berger, the national security advisers to Presidents Jimmy Carter, Gerald R. Ford, the first President George Bush and President Bill Clinton, advocated such a move, according to several current and former administration officials in the room. Mr. Scowcroft cast the issue in terms of United States national security and its relations with the Arab world. He argued that only American leadership would break the cycle of distrust, hostility and violence that has prevented Israel and its Arab neighbors from forging a lasting peace deal.
The fact that Mr. Obama was willing to have such an impromptu discussion with former advisers illustrates his increasing frustration with the foot-dragging over Middle East peace talks, and a growing sense that he may have to present a specific plan, rather than wait for the two sides to come to any sort of agreement.
The White House is still pushing for Israelis and Palestinians to have the indirect talks both sides had agreed to before the construction announcement raised too much consternation to proceed. But several administration officials acknowledge that those talks, if they ever start, may get mired pretty quickly.
In joining the discussion two weeks ago, Mr. Obama gave very little away about his intentions, attendees said. “He asked a lot of questions,” said one official at the meeting. “He didn’t say ‘great idea, bad idea.’ But he listened.”
For Mr. Obama, the issue of the status of East Jerusalem is central to his ambitions to forge a peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians during his presidency, a stated goal. But coming up with an American proposal has drawbacks of its own.
No one seated at the table disagreed with Mr. Scowcroft outright, the officials said — most of the men appeared to agree that Israelis and Palestinians, if left to their own devices, would not come up with anything. But a couple of the participants, including Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, urged caution, arguing that the administration had to figure out what “Acts 2, 3, and 4” would be if one or both of the sides balked at an American-designed peace deal.
So far, administration officials are still smarting from their first attempt at sticking their collective necks out, as they did last summer when they demanded a freeze of Jewish settlements, and then had to stand back with no contingency plan after Israel refused outright.
One Israeli worry is that once Mr. Obama puts American parameters on the table, the Palestinians will refuse to accept anything less. Meanwhile, Mr. Netanyahu, who leads the right-wing Likud party and whose governing coalition includes parties further to the right, might be unwilling or politically unable to make a deal, foreign policy experts said.
Still, for all of that, a consensus appears to be growing, both within the administration and among outside advisers to the White House, that Mr. Obama will have to consider suggesting a solution to get the two sides moving.
Such a move is “absolutely not on the table right now,” a senior administration official said, adding that the United States wanted to first see the start of the indirect, American-brokered peace negotiations, which diplomats refer to as “proximity talks.” But the official said those talks would “undoubtedly get mired down, and then you can expect that we would go in with something.”
What that would be remains up in the air, but most Middle East experts draw the same outline for a peace deal. First, Palestinian officials would have to accept that there would be no right of return for refugees of the 1948 war that established the Israeli state, and for their millions of descendants. Rather, the Palestinians would have to accept some kind of compensation. Second, the two sides would have to share Jerusalem — Palestinians locating their capital in the east and Israelis in the west, and both signing on to some sort of international agreement on how to share the holy sites in the Old City.
Third, Israel would return to its 1967 borders — before it captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the Six-Day War — give or take a few negotiated settlements and territorial swaps. Fourth, the United States or NATO would have to give Israel security guarantees, probably including stationing troops along the Jordan River, to ease Israeli fears that hostile countries could use the Palestinian state as a springboard for attacks. And finally, Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel.
“It’s not rocket science,” said Robert Malley, director of the Middle East Program at the International Crisis Group, the Brussels-based organization that seeks to prevent and resolve deadly conflicts. “And a lot of people who have looked at this have reached the conclusion that the parties won’t reach there on their own. If the U.S. wants it done, it will have to do it.”
Still, Mr. Malley said, “It’s not simply a matter of ‘put a plan on the table and see what happens.’ ” He said the administration must work on getting both Mr. Netanyahu and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to believe that their best option would be to go along with an American proposal — a tall order.